If you’re looking for an epic Colorado national parks road trip that will take you to some of the most beautiful and scenic national spots in Colorado, look no further! This itinerary will take you on a journey through Rocky Mountain National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Plus, we’ll give you information on some great side trips to Colorado’s national monuments and historic areas. So what are you waiting for? Start planning your Colorado national parks road trip today! If you want a more robust Colorado road trip with more than just national parks and national monuments, check out our itinerary for The Best Colorado Road Trip: A Scenic Adventure for the Nature Lover.
- The Four National Parks
- The Itinerary – Colorado National Parks Road Trip
- Noteworthy Side Trips to National Monuments
The Four National Parks
Rocky Mountain National Park
If you’re looking for epic mountain views, look no further than Rocky Mountain National Park. This park is home to some of the most beautiful and tallest peaks in Colorado, including Longs Peak (the tallest peak in the park) and Mount Meeker. This national park encompasses all things that make up the mountains: waterfalls, epic views, and high altitude alpine environments.
Best Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park :
- Longs Peak (14,259 feet) – the tallest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park; summit by taking the Keyhole Route (16 miles roundtrip).
- Alberta Falls is the most popular waterfall in the park and is an easy 1.7 miles roundtrip.
- Sky Pond (13,0612 feet) – a beautiful alpine lake located near the top of Longs Peak. This is a strenuous 9.5 mile hike that’s worth the effort!
- Flattop Mountain (12,324 feet) – a moderate hike that offers great views of Rocky Mountain National Park
- Enjoy the view from Bear Lake (elevation: 9430 feet) which is the shortest and most popular hike in the park.
Popular Things to Do in Rocky Mountain National Park:
- Drive Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuously paved road in the U.S. (open seasonally Memorial Day to late autumn)
- Visit the Beaver Meadows Visitors Center for a free museum and great information on the park
- Visit the Alluvial Fan (elevation: 8000 feet)
- See the Colorado national parks road trip historic Fall River Road
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Located in the San Luis Valley of Colorado, Great Sand Dunes is a unique park that features sand dunes up to 750 feet tall! There are also plenty of trails for hiking and biking enthusiasts alike. The best time to visit is during the spring or fall, when temperatures on the dunes are more bearable.
Best Hikes in Great Sand Dunes National Park:
- Dunes Overlook Trail is a flat, easy hike that gives you impressive views of the dunes.
- The Sand Ramp Trail is an easy hike that takes you to the bottom of the dunes.
- Mosca Pass is a moderate hike that offers great views of the Sangre de Cristo Range.
- Star Dune is a strenuous hike that takes you to the highest dune in the park.
Popular Things To Do in Great Sand Dunes National Park:
- Boarding down the sand dunes (rent a board at a local retailer)
- Swimming in Medano Creek (seasonal based on snow melt)
Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde is home to the largest archaeological preserve in North America, and is famous for its cliff dwellings. These dwellings were built by the Ancestral Puebloans over 600 years ago, and offer a fascinating glimpse into this ancient culture. There are also plenty of ranger-led tours to choose from, so be sure to check out their website before you go.
Best Hikes in Mesa Verde National Park:
- Spruce Tree House is a moderate hike that takes you to the most well-preserved cliff dwelling in the park. It’s only 0.75 miles roundtrip, so it’s perfect for those who don’t have a lot of time.
- Take the Mesa Verde Cliff Dwelling Tour for an in-depth look at this ancient culture.
- Canyon Overlook is a short, easy hike that gives you amazing views of the park from above.
- Petroglyph Point Trail is a moderate hike that takes you to some ancient rock art, or petroglyphs.
Popular Things to do in Mesa Verde National Park:
- Drive the Mesa Top Loop Road and stop at all the waypoints
- Take a ranger-led tour
- Visit the museum
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is one of Colorado’s lesser-known national parks, but it’s definitely worth a visit! This park is known for its steep and narrow canyon, which is over 2000 feet deep. This park is best seen by walking on the many short hiking trails located throughout the park.
Best Hikes in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park:
- Painted Wall is a relatively easy hike that takes you to the tallest cliff in the park. This is a must-do and is the view that the park is most famous for.
- Rim Rock Nature Trail is a flat, easy hike that takes you to the rim of the canyon.
- Chasm View is a moderate hike that offers great views of Black Canyon.
- South Rim Trail is a strenuous hike that takes you from the bottom of the canyon to the top.
Popular Things To Do in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park:
- Drive the scenic Rim Drive Road and stop at the scenic viewpoints
- Take a ranger-led hike
- Visit the visitor center
Painted Wall at Black Canyon of the Gunnison
The Itinerary – Colorado National Parks Road Trip
If you fly into Denver International Airport, the first national park on the list is Rocky Mountain National Park, which is just a 1.5 hours northwest from the airport. From there, you can continue on to Great Sand Dunes (south then west, 5 hours, 267 miles), then to Mesa Verde (west, 4 hours, 199 miles). The last stop would be Black Canyon of the Gunnison (north, 3 hours, 153 miles) before heading back to Denver to fly out.
This total out to 19 hours and 15 minutes with 1,050 miles without any side trips. But while you’re out there adventuring, consider some of these great additions to your road trip. Take a look at these National Monuments that could spark your interest enough for a side trip on the epic Colorado national parks road trip.
Noteworthy Side Trips to National Monuments
Colorado National Monument
After Black Canyon of the Gunnison, you can take a northwest side trip to Colorado National Monument, which is unlike any of the terrain seen in the national parks. The monument is known for its red rock canyons, towering monoliths and massive rock formations. It reminds us of certain parts of Utah, and is near Rattlesnake Canyon, which has the highest concentration of natural arches behind Arches National Park.
Best Hikes & Things to Do in Colorado National Monument:
- Devil’s Kitchen is a short, easy hike that takes you to some amazing rock formations.
- Rim Rock Drive Scenic Drive is a flat, easy drive that gives you the best views of the red rock formations.
- Serpents Trail is a moderate hike that takes you through a narrow canyon.
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
Not only does this park have the most intriguing name, but it’s only a short side trip from Mesa Verde National Park. The monument is known for its Ancestral Puebloan ruins, many of which are unexcavated and in their natural state.
Best Hikes & Things to Do in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument:
- Anasazi Loop Trail is an easy hike that takes you to a variety of ancient ruins.
- Windy Point Loop is a moderate hike with great views.
- Heritage Trail is a strenuous hike that takes you through some beautiful ruins.
Chimney Rock National Monument
Located on the route between Great Sand Dunes and Mesa Verde lies a hidden gem in Chimney Rock National Monument. The monument is known for its 200+ homes and ceremonial structures built by the Chaco people 1,000 years ago and a 300-foot spire, which you can climb if you’re feeling adventurous. It’s home to the ancestors of modern Pueblo Indians and is of great spiritual significance.
Best Hikes & Things to Do in Chimney Rock National Monument:
- Chimney Rock Trail is a moderate hike that takes you to the base of the spire.
- Rising Sun Viewpoint is a short, easy hike with great views.
- High Point Loop is a strenuous hike with great views.
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
While it’s a little more tucked out of the way, this national monument would be a great addition to any epic Colorado road trip, and it’s unlike anything else seen in the other stops. The monument is known for its petrified redwoods, which are some of the largest and best-preserved fossils in the world, as well as thousands of fossilized insects.
Best Hikes & Things to Do in Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument:
- Fern Glen Trail is an easy hike that takes you through a beautiful fern glen.
- Upland Trail is a moderate hike that takes you through the petrified redwoods.
- Petrified Forest Loop is a strenuous hike with great views.
Browns Canyon National Monument
The monument is known for its raging whitewater, impressive canyons and stunning vistas. It’s a great place for adventure seekers and those looking to get off the beaten path. It’s one of the most popular white water rafting destinations, which peaks in May and June during spring runoff.
Best Hikes & Things to Do in Browns Canyon National Monument:
- Rafters Point Trail is an easy hike that takes you to the best views of the rapids.
- Johns Canyon Trail is a moderate hike that takes you through some beautiful canyons.
- Take a rafting trip with one of the companies based in Buena Vista. Finish your rafting trip with a soak in one of the many local hot springs, like Mount Princeton Hot Springs.
Dinosaur National Monument
While significantly off route from the four national parks in Colorado, this National Monument is a less-trafficked place that’s still worth the time. The monument is known for its over 900 dinosaur fossils, as well as petroglyphs and archeological sites. One of the best ways to see the park is by raft on one of the two river systems in the park, the Yampa and the Green.
Best Hikes & Things to Do in Dinosaur National Monument:
- Jurassic Trail is a moderate hike that takes you to the best views of the fossil quarry.
- Green River overlook is an easy hike with great views.
- Roaring Fork Loop is a strenuous hike with great views.
- Take a rafting trip on the Yampa or Green river for a special look at the monument.
This Colorado national parks road trip itinerary is perfect for those looking to see some of Colorado’s most beautiful and iconic national parks, as well as get a little taste of adventure. Bes sure to check out the options for additional side trips to add some extra adventure to your awesome road trip!